5. Notre Dame, Paris
Every cathedral on our list has seen a lot of events in its life, but none has suffered quite as much as Notre Dame in Paris. After the French Revolution, the cathedral was desecrated and its treasures stolen. The revolutionaries used it first as a meeting place for their new state religions and then eventually as a warehouse. It was later restored, but then damaged by stray bullets during the occupation of Paris in the Second World War. Still, it remains standing and has been gently restored to its former, gilded glory with an impressive 7,374-pipe organ.
4. Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo
The grandly titled Catedral Primada Santa María de Toledo is sometimes called the “Magnum Opus” of the Gothic style. It’s certainly impressive, with its centerpiece being the retable (above), which stretches behind the altar for five stories and depicts events in the life of Christ, topped with his Crucifixion. The retable was commissioned by Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros in 1497, and took seven years to complete, with many notable artists of the day working on it.
The construction of the cathedral itself took 267 years, from work beginning in 1226, to the vaults of the nave being completed in 1493. The first master builder was traditionally said to be Petrus Petri, as implied by these words on his tombstone: “Petrus Petri, deceased in 1291, master of the church of Saint Mary of Toledo, whose fame was propagated by his good examples and customs, who constructed this temple and rests here, for what an admirable building he made, he will not feel the wrath of God” Latterly, however, it has been suggested that there was a master before Petri and that Petri may have received a disproportionate amount of credit for this magnificent building.
3. Albi Cathedral
Another building that took over 200 years to construct, this French cathedral was formerly known as Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile d’Albi but St Cecilia lost her billing. It’s said to be the largest brick building in the world and was built to demonstrate the strength of God and the church in the face of rebellions. As intended, it dominates the town with its 78-meter belltower that dates from 1492. While the outside looks almost like a fortress, the French Gothic interior is elaborate and gilded with a painted ceiling. It may have been a symbol of strength, but there is delicacy and beauty to be found here too.
2. Milan Cathedral
Rome doesn’t have the monopoly on beautiful cathedrals – the Duomo di Milano is the fifth largest in the world and is home to a number of famous features, such as the statue of San Bartolomeo Flayed. Construction took almost 600 years to complete, starting in 1386 and finally being finished in 1965. As such, it is a bit of a mixture of architectural styles, which both adds to its charm and deters purists. For example, the British art critic John Ruskin described it as stealing “from every style in the world: and every style spoiled”. Nonetheless, it is an impressive sight and is rightly famous, with the Madonna statue on the roof inspiring a song – “O mia bela Madunina” . The interior is also impressive, with three altars and a Renasissance-era presbytery. It may have offended Ruskin, but it’s well worth a visit.
1. Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, Seville
Another cathedral that is almost excessive in its size and ornamentation, it contains this magnificent altar that seems to stretch most of the way up to Heaven. It’s unsurprising then to find out that the cathedral was built to demonstrate the wealth of the city in 1402. Apparently, the founders said “Let us build a church so beautiful and so great that those who see it built will think we were mad”, and the church is beautiful and great to an almost insane extent, so their mission was accomplished. It’s the third largest church in the world, and the largest Gothic cathedral, with 80 chapels and the 343-foot bell tower known as the Giralda. The interior drips with opulence and there is gilding on every side. It certainly does demonstrate wealth, if not modesty.